Master of couture

By | Art & Design
Fashion Designer Valentino Master of Couture Somerset House Exhibition London. Credit@Lorenzo Agius

Few designers may claim the distinction of having had a colour named after them, or of being intimately associated with one. Valentino may be one of them.

For decades, the hue affectionately known in fashion circles as ‘Valentino red’ has beguiled women the world over. The legendary Italian fashion designer may be known, among other things, for his long, flowing bright red dresses; a vintage look that continues to epitomise high fashion and feminine beauty.

Valentino: Master of Couture, a three-month exhibition at Somerset House celebrates the bronzed Italian fashion maestro’s illustrious 50-year career. The show, which runs from 29th November through to 3rd March 2013, aims to feature exquisite hand-crafted gowns taken from the catwalk, red carpet, and private commissions for some of the world’s most iconic women, like Princess Margaret and Sophia Loren.

“Valentino remains one of the last great couturiers of the 20th century,” says Alistair O’Neil, one of the exhibition’s curators along with long time Valentino collaborators Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda. “He stands for an approach to dressing women through the principles of elegance and refinement.”

The latter is brought to life in the three-part exhibition which takes a reflective look at the design maestro’s life and career, using previously unseen photographs from his personal archive. It consists of over 130 examples of his finest haute couture pieces which visitors may view whilst traversing a 60 metre catwalk.

Finally, the exhibit offers a unique glimpse into the artistry of couture and the time-consuming atelier construction process. For this purpose, there is a series of films and an installation of Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece’s elaborate 1995 wedding gown comprised of ten different types of lace.

Valentino Garavani was born in Voghera in Northern Italy in 1932. At the age of 17, he moved to Paris to study fashion design at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, and began an apprenticeship with Jean Dessès. Valentino opened an atelier in Rome in 1959 however quickly ran into financial challenges due to the precision of his work and his extravagant choice of materials. However, his 1962 debut couture collection at the Pitti Palace in Florence, the former fashion capital of Italy, was an unprecedented triumph and saw him inundated with press attention and orders from Europe.

“He decided to return to Italy to connect to the much more modest Roman couture industry, which at that time was strongly linked to the burgeoning Italian film industry and the country’s connections to America,” says O’Neil.

By the mid-’60s, Valentino had established a reputation for dressing Hollywood film stars and European royalty, including Grace Kelly. His following in America grew substantially when Jackie Kennedy ordered six haute couture dresses in black and white, which she wore during her year of mourning following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. The champion of the ‘little black dress’ quickly became a fan of the ‘red dress’, as well as a loyal customer and friend. The First Lady commissioned Valentino to design her wedding gown for her marriage to Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

Valentino aimed to continue to conquer the world, opening his first ready-to-wear stores in Milan, Rome and New York. However, his legacy may likely always be intimately connected to his couture collections. Surrounded by supermodels Naomi Campbell, Eva Herzigova and Claudia Schiffer, the master of couture retired in 2008, receiving a standing ovation for his final show in Paris.

Today, Valentino lives in Rome with his beloved pug dogs and his partner of 45 years, Giancarlo Giametti.

Valentino: Master of Couture
29 November 2012 – 3 March 2013
Embankment Galleries, Somerset House, Strand
London WC2R 1LA


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